Outbreak unveils worst side of some Cambodians

Outbreak unveils worst side of some Cambodians

It was 1.25am on Saturday, April 16, 2016 when a series of earthquakes hit the city of Kumamoto in the southern part of Japan's Kyushu region. With a main shock of magnitude 7.3, the earthquake was strong enough to shake the city of Beppu in nearby Oita Prefecture. Fearing that my old apartment would collapse, I dashed out to the street barefoot.

The sound of sirens reached almost every corner of downtown Beppu, warning of a possible tsunami and repeatedly urging people to head to evacuation centres on higher ground. And then within just a few minutes, a swarm of Japan's Ground Self-Defence Forces (JGSDF) helicopters came out of nowhere to monitor and assess the situation from the sky.

Even though I was truly impressed by the high readiness of the JGSDF for disaster relief, I was, of course, even more frightened by the seriousness of the situation these helicopters implied.

Even though the tsunami warning was lifted an hour later, a series of aftershocks continued. A small group of Cambodian students and I returned to our apartment to get some necessary items -- our passports, residency and ATM cards -- and rushed back to the evacuation centre. Our landlady, Hisama Keiko Obaasan ("Old Lady"), was busy driving her compact car back and forth to transport some other older tenants and their children to the evacuation centre.

At the centre, community volunteers approached us and gave us new blankets, dried food and drinking water. Since we looked non-Japanese and we talked in Khmer, several local residents asked us if it was our first time experiencing an earthquake, to which I said, "Yes".

One Obaasan looked at my face and told me in Japanese, "You must have been very frightened, but you don't need to worry. It is fine. You are safe here."

Even though I wasn't really convinced it was safe, it definitely made me feel better.

I went out to a nearby Lawson -- a popular convenience store chain in Japan -- to buy some more food and water, only to be impressed yet again by the generosity of the Japanese. To help people at the evacuation centre, Lawson offered drinking water for free.

I don't expect to see such a disaster in Cambodia, but I wish I could witness such generosity by Cambodians, should the country experience a deadly disaster in the future.

The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak which began early last month, however, shows how Cambodia remains a selfish society. A code of business ethics, as seen in Japan, is too much to ask. In Cambodia, opportunists trying to make a profit by ripping off people will always prevail during a crisis.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, it is critically important that people follow a number of guidelines announced by Cambodia's Ministry of Health to prevent people-to-people infection, which include wearing face masks in public places. This has boosted demand for all kinds of masks. Since the ministry confirmed the country's first coronavirus infection on Jan 27 -- a Chinese man travelling from Wuhan to the city of Sihanoukville -- we have seen panic and greed worsen. A slew of misinformation on social media has terrorised people even further.

Cheap surgical masks have become extremely expensive and hard to find. Although some government agencies and generous locals have donated masks to the public, there are simply not enough for everyone. Opportunistic traders are exploiting the situation by selling masks at 5 to 10 times the normal price. Applying the theory of supply and demand in a crisis and generating profits at the cost of common interest is unethical to say the least.

Historically, the people of Cambodia used to be civilised, friendly, honest and helpful. However, decades of civil war, political instabilities and poverty have drastically changed the attitude of Cambodians, regardless of their gender, age, occupation and educational background. People living in the city, in particular, are even less empathetic toward each other. A minor traffic incident can result in violence. Ignoring traffic lights and violating the law is a common phenomenon. Many people cannot stand waiting in line for tickets, payment or public services. Occasionally, some people will jump the queue in order to get things done quickly. Instead of feeling guilty about breaking social norms or disturbing public order, they seem to be satisfied and proud of their "smart" tactics to beat others. When ill-practices are rampant, society is suffering a serious problem.

According to Water.org, a global organisation working to bring clean water and better sanitation to the world's poor, some three million Cambodians still lack access to clean water, while about 6.5 million still lack access to proper plumbing. While many are trapped in poverty, the rich few with high social status and family connections continue to enjoy a materialistic existence. To many people in Cambodia, being smart and selfish are synonymous.

To survive the ongoing crisis, Cambodia desperately needs a stronger sense of national solidarity. Cambodians need to put common interests above personal interests. It is time to stop being selfish and opportunistic in times of crisis. Cambodia has experienced outbreaks of deadly diseases, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sares-CoV) in 2003, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers-CoV) in 2012. More will come in the future. Cambodia will suffer more if its people maintain their selfish mindset.

Sek Sophal

Researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre

Sek Sophal is a researcher at the Democracy Promotion Centre, the Ritsumeikan Centre for Asia Pacific Studies in Beppu, Japan. He is also a contributor to The Bangkok Post

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